4:15 in the morning, coffee, (double espresso) 🙄 in hand, I made my way to the Bridge. The glow of radar screens and instrument lighting through a faint glow across the otherwise darkened space. It takes a while for my eyes to become accustomed to the surroundings; ahead of us one can see the lights of Cristobal, the port (and city) at the northern end of the Canal.
To the west and east are the lights of scores of ships, most at anchor, waiting for their ‘slot’ in a convoy, others are making way, either heading south for the Canal, or, having transited, making their way north through the Caribbean. The continuous chatter on the VHF radio, Cristobal Signal station controlling the order of entry, organising vessels to arrive in their scheduled position for the forthcoming southbound convoy. We follow a heavily laden bulk-carrier, remaining 2 miles astern of her; a tanker astern of us, also assuming a position, 2 miles from us. So it continues, like ducks-in-a-row we make our approach. It has been blowing ever since we departed Santa Marta, strong north-east winds at 35 mph and it has not abated. The “Amsterdam” has a vast surface area and is susceptible to these winds and as we approach the entrance between the breakwaters, we are ‘crabbing’ sideways and making allowance as we do so. Once through, we reduce speed; numerous small boats approach us, occupants of which will board us for inspections, (to deem if we are in compliance with Canal requirements), ship agents, inspectors and a pilot, (this being compulsory for a Canal transit). We plod our way south while all this is occurring, keeping astern of the Bulker and making our way towards the first of our locks. This is Gatun, a ‘flight’ of locks, meaning we go from one lock straight into the next and from that to the next; this will raise us to the level of Gatun Lake. This we cross before reaching the locks which will take us ‘down’ to the Pacific sea-level; first is Pedro Miguel and finally Miraflores.
As is the norm on a canal transit, nothing quite seems to go as planned, this one is no exception. Having left the locks, we are informed that we will have to wait; there is a laden LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) carrier on its way north. Passing these potential bombs is, (for obvious reasons) tightly controlled. So, we have to wait in order that, when we do, there is sufficient space between us. So, we anchor in Gatun Lake for 3 hours….there goes our planned schedule.
Eventually we weigh anchor and start our Lake transit, the good news being that we are now number 1 in the convoy, the Bulker is now following us; we can now ‘set the pace’ and off we go. Once we have crossed the Lake, it’s into the narrower channel we go, one-way traffic here, any northbound ships will have to wait. Past Gamboa, where a large maintenance facility is based and into the Culebra Cut; here it is really narrow and a compulsory tug is in company, just in case……
Under Centennial bridge and, 9-hours after we entered Gatun locks, we approach Pedro Miguel locks; here we go down.
A short distance later, Miraflores and down to the Pacific.
Over 14 hours since we entered, we disembark our last pilot and commence our voyage to Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where we arrive tomorrow.